The Responsibility of Digitally Narrating our Colleagues

We have all been there. That awkward moment when, before going into a meeting, a colleague asks you: “So what kind of person is she (or he)?” meaning another colleague.

I had never really thought about this. But, as the Harvard Business Review puts it, every day we are given the opportunity to ‘narrate’ our colleagues and the way in which we chose to do it “makes a big difference in how they feel about themselves and their work”.

At some level, I have always been aware of the importance of how you talk about your co-workers . It has a lot to do with your moral compass. And if you, like me, have worked in toxic environments in the past, you know how much damage putting down colleagues can do.

Reading the @HarvardBiz article also made me realise something else. It is really true that, by telling the story of your colleagues’ work, we actively contribute to creating a meta narrative that becomes part of the culture of the organisation.

The Harvard Business Review describes a number of situations in which it is beneficial to describe colleagues “as someone others would want to narrate in ways that cultivate positive self-meaning”.

I can relate to two of them in particular.

The first one is about onboarding. The article highlights the importance of introducing a new hire in a way that is “welcoming and psychologically strengthening” by telling the story of their background and the contribution they bring to the team. I made this experience years ago when, on my first day in a new job, a Japanese colleague came to my office (remember those and the days before hot desking…?) and told me that he had read the press release (today it would be a blog post…) the company had issued about me and wanted to congratulate me on my “distinguished career”. I found the expression “distinguished” so respectful, like a bridge between his culture and mine. After all these years, I still remember how he said it.

The article also talks about what to do when we see colleagues being “socially undermined”.

Unfortunately, I have been there a few times myself, earlier on in my career.  In a previous job, I had a colleague who at the end of 1-to-1 meetings would make a point of telling me the negative things one colleague or the other was supposed to have said about me (mostly it was all in his mind…). A rather clumsy attempt on his part to engage in some good old ‘divide and conquer’. What he wanted to get out of me was something that would feed his perpetual negative ‘narrative’. I never really engaged with it.  Strangely, every time he would play that game and badmouth a member of my team, I would feel encouraged to be more supportive of that person.

This article really sums it up: “every day we have opportunities to help others create positive meaning in how we communicate with our colleagues”.

But how does all this apply in the era of WFH, hot desking and conference calling? How do we ‘narrate’ others in the midst of a digital transformation program?

The article does not really go there. But I believe the same principles apply to a digital environment.

We can also argue that the opportunities of ‘narrating’ colleagues we get on digital platforms and enterprise channels have ‘longer legs’ than a comment dropped on the way to a meeting. Our ‘like’ at the bottom of a blog post that a colleague has written about his successful project tends to last longer and reach further.  A badge we send to a fellow team member for the support they have given us with a sale to a difficult client is up there for the entire organisation to see. It has now become part not only of the person’s profile on the company’s network but also of the overall narrative about them.

It looks like the more corporate digital channels we get, the more opportunities we have to ‘narrate’ our colleagues. And with that, comes a bigger responsibility. This a side of digital transformation we should never forget.


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